Edward Durell Stone: A Belated Appreciation by Hicks Stone

Edward Durell Stone: A Belated Appreciation by Hicks Stone

Pops-Hicks-Agrigento-1959Edward Durell Stone was my father. Father and I had a tenuous and at times a difficult relationship. He would have found it both comically improbable and deeply touching if he had been aware that I had written his biography. Even though our relationship was distant, I had a closely-held but deeply-seated admiration for his achievements. The underlying impetus to write his biography extends back to my childhood in New York during the 1960s. Anyone who came of age during those years recalls them as a time when activists would champion the rights of people unjustly relegated to living life at the margins of society. It was this sensitivity to injustice and an activist’s desire to right wrongs that set me on the course that led me to submit a proposal to Rizzoli for my father’s biography in the spring of 2008. Simply stated, Father has been unfairly treated for over a half-century, and the time for him to be accorded the simple decency, recognition and respect that he deserves from the architectural community is long overdue.

 

 

 

Father was one of the earliest practitioners of European modernism in the United States starting with his home for Richard Mandel in Mount Kisco, NY in 1933. But as his work evolved over time he became a favored rhetorical target of the modernist academic and critical elite in the late 1950s; it is a tendency that has diminished with time, but still exists to this day. His principal offense was the use of ornament and classical ordering principles in his later work, an approach that was anathema to the tenets of International Style modernism first articulated in 1932 by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson. During the 1950s strict modernists were attempting, through their positions in academia, to expunge traditional elements from our collective architectural vocabulary. Overlaying this aesthetic conflict was the fact that Father enjoyed great commercial success and celebrity by pursuing this highly personal way of working. ESTONotably, he was featured on the cover of a 1958 issue of Time, one of only twelve architects ever to be accorded that honor.1 His prominence eroded the modernists’ message; inevitably his success bred greater hostility and resentment. In fact, almost immediately after the publication of the Time article, early modern architect and Harvard educator, Serge Chermayeff, attempted to trivialize Father’s work and diminish his standing in a letter to the editor of the nation’s leading architectural journal.2

Contemporary architects are unable to appreciate the control that modernist pedagogues exerted over architectural thought. This orthodoxy was led charismatically and persuasively by architects like Chermayeff at Harvard and Philip Johnson at Yale. In this restrictive environment, even practicing architects themselves began to wonder whether the regime of austerity imposed by this limited view of architectural expression had gone too far. An early symposium at the Architectural League of New York in 1950, “Must Our Architecture Be Sterile” was one particularly vivid instance of architects responding to the limitations imposed by adherence to the tenets of International Style modernism.3

New DelhiThis intellectual and creative lockstep was dramatically demonstrated to me in a first year class in modern architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 1979 where I was enrolled in the Master’s of Architecture program. During a survey of midcentury architecture, Father’s U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India was shown to the class. The embassy was a project that was widely considered by architectural critics to be pivotal; the first manifestation of what would later be called The New Formalism.4 But strangely, most of the class of some eighty students started hissing in unison. These were students in their first year of graduate school, little more than adolescents who barely knew how to draw a floor plan. But regardless of their inexperience, word had filtered down to them that they should hate Edward Stone’s work. Ironically, this was also at the height of the postmodern movement; students were mimicking the work of Michael Graves and producing classicist collages and cluttering their designs with Tuscan columns. How strange then that they should revile an architect who sought to reawaken an interest in architectural history and precedent. In the hallowed halls of ivy, hating Stone’s work was simply the reflexive and fashionably correct thing to do; whether it made sense or not was another matter.

Robinson ResidenceMuch of Father’s later work was born of his particularly American point of view. After an automobile trip across the country in 1940, he turned away from the International Style and European modernism believing that they were inimical to American life. His bucolic origins at the edge of the American frontier reinforced his belief in the necessity of domestic warmth and an intimate connection to nature; both attitudes were vividly demonstrated in his work of the 1940s and early 1950s. Shortly after the trip, he staked out his position when he observed that, “American architecture, whatever its debt to others, must find its own solutions in its own way.” 5

During the trip, he was deeply troubled by the impact that haphazard and disfiguring roadside development had on the nation’s landscape; he would champion the cause of sensitive urbanization that was respectful of our natural heritage for the rest of his life. His statement to a New York Times reporter in 1964 displays a conviction and strength that few contemporary architects would choose to invoke. Deploring, “the colossal mess that we have made of the face of this country” he observed that “everything betrays us as a bunch of catchpenny materialists devoted to a blatant, screeching insistence on commercialism.” He went on to say that, “our materialism, of which the older civilizations correctly accuse us, is disgusting for anyone who has a conscience.” 6

Thurmauer ResidenceThe 1940 trip also led him to Taliesin East in Wisconsin and a meeting with Frank Lloyd Wright. As Father said in his autobiography, “it was the first time that I had ever walked through one of Mr. Wright’s buildings, and I was overwhelmed by its beauty.” 7 Wright and Father would become close; it was a friendship that would endure until Wright’s death in 1959. Their bond was formed over a love of the American landscape, a shared vision of architectural beauty and a mutually-held contempt for the practitioners of European modernism. Maria Stone, my father’s second wife and my mother, would often tell a story of a luncheon at Taliesin West in Arizona with Wright, Olgivanna Wright and my father, where Wright would swat at flies and gleefully announce as he dispatched the intruders, “that was Mies…that was Gropius…that was Corbusier.” As he did so, the table would erupt in laughter. Perhaps surprising to some, the influence of Wright can readily be seen in Father’s postwar work. Father freely borrowed from Wright; even his famed and reviled terrazzo grill block has its antecedent in Wright’s textile block homes of the 1920s. Father viewed Wright heroically, a fact that he attested to in an homage that he wrote for Saturday Review shortly after Wright’s death. 8 As a vivid reminder of his debt to Wright, Father kept a bronze bust of Wright in his office on a sideboard by his desk and positioned next to it a photograph of them together taken at Taliesin West.

One of the central dilemmas of my efforts has been that those who knew Father’s skills best and could bear witness to his abilities as an architect are now long gone. I speak of architects like Pietro Belluschi, Richard Bennett, Gordon Bunshaft, Wallace K. Harrison, Henry Shepley, Louis Skidmore and Ralph Walker; all of them worked closely with Father, knew the breadth of his talent, were good friends of his and could have provided great insights. Instead, I have had to rely on their published statements wherever possible. Belluschi in a 1958 interview with Time, and then the dean of MIT’s School of Architecture, described Edward Stone as “a man of great native talent” who “regards architecture as really an art to be interpreted in its own terms” and who “stands out for not being chained to dogmatic thinking.”  9Belluschi also observed that Stone was “able to give modern architecture a more gracious, human feeling.” 10

As Father once said to an interviewer, “There is too much conformity in contemporary architecture. I like to think of architecture as an individual creative expression; I get more pleasure out of my work if I carry through my own convictions rather than pursue a dogma outlined by some other architect. An architect should try to find his own expression…Americans more than ever need to cultivate the open mind. Those who assert their individuality should find greater tolerance from their fellow man; if our flights of fancy found receptive audiences, and each of us were encouraged to be an individual, our lives would be enriched.”11

During the course of my lectures in support of the book over the last year, I have been gratified by the enthusiastic responses of my audiences. It seems to me that the siren song of puritanical modernism holds less sway, particularly with younger audiences. The message that I convey about Father seems to be falling on more receptive ears, and thankfully, no one hisses when I show images of the New Delhi embassy anymore. It is my hope that my book will enable architects of this decade to do as my father suggested to his contemporaries over four decades ago, to cultivate an open mind, not only about the work of others but also about the work of Edward Durell Stone.

 


Citations:
1“More Than Modern”, Time 71, March 31, 1958, 56-64. The other architects given Time covers were Philip Johnson, William Pereira, Minoru Yamasaki, Le Corbusier, Eero Saarinen, Wallace K. Harrison, Richard Neutra, Charles Luckman, Frank Lloyd Wright, William Delano, and Ralph Adams Cram.

2“The Shell Game”, Letters to the Editor, Architectural Forum 109, July, 1958, 54 and 56.

3“Revised Conference Schedule”, Conference of October 18, 1950, folder Education Committee 1950-1951, box 36, Architectural League of New York Papers, Archives of American Art, Washington D.C.
4Marcus Whiffen, American Architecture Since 1780: A Guide to the Styles, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981), 256-262.
5Recent Work of Edward D. Stone”, Architectural Forum 75, July, 1941, 17.
6“Edward Durell Stone ‘Deplores Mess We’ve Made of Country’”, New York Times, August 27, 1964.
7Edward Durell Stone, The Evolution of an Architect, (New York: Horizon, 1962), 89.
8Edward Durell Stone, “Hero, Prophet, Adventurer”, Saturday Review 42, November 7, 1959, 15-17.
9Pietro Belluschi, Interview filed by Murray Gart, February 28, 1958, Boston, MA. Unpublished transcript at Time Archives, New York, NY, 1.
10Ibid., 3.
11Paul Heyer, Architects on Architecture, (Walker and Company: New York, 1966), 177-178.

Image credits:
1. Edward Durell Stone and Hicks Stone in Segesta, Sicily (1959). Courtesy of the Stone Family Archives.
2. The Richard Mandel in Mount Kisco, NY (1933). (c) Roger Straus III/Esto.
3. U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India (1954). Courtesy of the Stone Family Archives.
4. Robinson Residence, Harrison, AR (1953). Courtesy of the Stone Family Archives.
5. Thurnauer Residence, Teaneck, NJ (1949). Courtesy of the Stone Family Archives.


About the Author: Hicks Stone is a practicing architect in the New York City area; he founded his firm Stone Architecture, LLC in 1991. He is the author of Edward Durell Stone: A Son’s Untold Story of a Legendary Architect, which was published by Rizzoli in October 2011. He can be reached at hicks.stone(at)stone-architecture.com.

 

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